You could say that making alcohol is kind of in her blood. When Barrel 21 Distillery’s new head distiller, Erica Unruh, was a kid in northern California, her family was big into homebrewing. Naturally, when she grew up, she picked up the hobby, too, learning to enjoy the process of mixing and fermenting new concoctions. After all, it is a family tradition.
Then one day Erica got word of a plan that was brewing out in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, where her uncle’s family lives.
“Just between conversations between my nephew and my brother, I found out that they had this crazy idea of opening up a distillery in Wyoming, using the grains that they were already growing, because you can make a lot more money on that than on the grains being sold for feed,” says Erica.
That idea turned into reality, and the family opened a malting company to process their grains and Pine Bluffs Distilling to turn that malt into spirits. Erica became intrigued and reached out to see if they could use a hand getting this new venture off the ground. She was in luck; they told her they could really use a distiller.
“That was in 2017. So, at that point I had been in California for 34 years. I was working for a university, and I decided to just take a big leap of faith and move to Wyoming and do distilling,” says Erica. Her background in homebrewing provided a little bit of knowledge about the alcohol-making process, but distilling is kind of a different ball game. To better learn the ropes of her new profession, she enrolled at Moonshine University, naturally located in Kentucky.
“It was a weeklong crash course, and then I just did hands-on learning. We had a test still in Wyoming to just experiment on and learn the process before we got our full-sized equipment. Then it was just hands-on learning,” says Erica. Through a lot of trial and error, Erica navigated her way through the distilling process, which she compares to being a chef.
“I love to cook, and I compare it to cooking. I love just taking a simple grain and turning it into bourbon or whatever the product is. I think you can be creative with it—it is like a recipe, making something from simple ingredients. It is just fun, taking something like apples and making into it brandy. So, it is like a form of creative cooking for me and experimenting with the creative process. I love it,” says Erica.
After all that experimenting and creating, Erica’s spirits became a hit. In 2017, Pine Bluffs Distillery Rock Ranch Vodka was awarded the bronze medal at the American Craft Spirits Awards. Sadly, Erica was on maternity leave when the medal was won, so she didn’t get to join her co-workers up on stage to accept the award, but she said it was still proof that her leap of faith was rewarded.
Despite the success, eventually it was time for Erica and her family to branch out to new horizons. She was recruited for a job at Penn State in campus recreation, which she took. Her family settled into Happy Valley quick, as her husband, Jon, joined the brewing team out at New Trail Brewing in Williamsport (a brewer married to a distiller, they must throw the best parties).
By trading in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming for the hills of central Pennsylvania, the family has found a new home that in some ways reminds them of California.
“I grew up in northern California, like near the Lake Tahoe area, so spent a lot of time outdoors growing up, camping, hiking, just around lakes and rivers and things like that. I have found a lot of that here. I am a big runner and there are a lot of running opportunities here. Plus, I have a three-year-old and I have found that this is a really family friendly area, so there is always stuff going on. And the community, we have just met a lot of great people. Plus, we both like to travel and I never lived on the east coast before, so it is nice to be out here,” said Erica.
Then, during the pandemic, like many others, Erica began to think about what she really wanted to do with the rest of her life, and the answer wasn’t at Penn State. The pull of the whiskey stills was leading her back into the world of distilling. In a case of perfect timing, Barrel 21 was looking for someone to step into the role of head distiller.
So, she left her job at Penn State and, in September, Erica began learning her way around Barrel’s distillery, taking three months to train with long-time head distiller Mike Smith before he departed.
“The transition has been great, everyone here is super supportive, and I feel like I was trained really well,” says Erica. “Here we have a lot of products that I never made before and so it was really fun to learn how to make those new products. I appreciate that now they are like, ‘we want to see what you can do’ and so I think that will be a balance of what other people want versus what I enjoy. … It is cool taking the tradition of what he made and continuing that on, and also having the support of the company to have creativity and try new products, too.”
She plans to put some of her award-winning vodka-making experience into producing flavored vodka at Barrel 21.
“I would love to do a jalapeno flavored vodka, because I like spicy stuff and I also think it would do well in bloody marys and other drinks here, too,” says Erica. As she steps into the new roles, she understands that when it comes to distilling, patience is important.
“I really enjoy making whiskeys and bourbons, but you don’t see the results from that for at least two years, and so there is just a lot of trusting in the process along the way,” says Erica.
She especially likes rye whiskey because of the peppery notes and has taken a liking to making Barrel 21’s Maple Rusted Rye Whiskey, because the “maple finish adds a subtle sweetness to it.”
Don’t fret too much if you don’t want to wait to try Erica’s creations, because while there may be a wait for those whiskeys to be aged, many other Erica-made products are already on the shelves ready to be tasted and enjoyed.
By taking the reins at Barrels 21, Erica becomes the first female head distiller in Centre County, adding to the ever-growing trend of more diversity in the craft beverage industry across the country.
“It is definitely a male dominated industry, much like craft beer. I have seen the pros and cons of it. As female, you have to prove yourself more. You get questioned more about your knowledge and abilities. If people walk in here and they see me, they don’t typically assume the female is the one doing the distilling,” says Erica. “I grew up with two older brothers, so I feel like I don’t let it get to me that much. But there are challenges female distillers have to face. But I think it is cool that more females are getting into craft beer and distilling and think that everyone has their own unique things they bring to the table.”
Having a husband who works as a brewer has it perks, as she is able to talk shop at home. The couple has been known to bounce ideas off each other and taste test each other’s work. They sure seem to have found happiness in Happy Valley“We both landed jobs that we love, so we are growing roots here and definitely want to stick around,” says Erica. “It is a cool place.” T&G
Town&Gown staff writer Vincent Corso enjoys drinking local and meeting new people at central Pennsylvania’s many interesting establishments. This story appears in the April 2022 issue of Town&Gown.